sea mines

Scott Benowitz makes a special report as to why we need to ban any future use of sea mines.

In our April 21st, 2017 issue, I wrote an article in which I’d discussed the various reasons that the Clinton, the Bush II, the Obama as well as the Trump administrations have had for refusing to sign party to The 1997 Convention On The Prohibition Of The Use, Stockpiling, Production And Transfer Of Anti-Personnel Mines And On Their Destruction.  The 1997 Ottawa Treaty addressed the use of land mines worldwide; there has yet to be a comparable treaty which addresses sea mines.

The use of sea mines (or “naval mines”) is in far less regulated than the use of land mines.  Whereas the United Nations Convention On Certain Conventional Weapons (written in 1980, signed in 1981, entered into effect beginning in 1983) includes very specific terms as to what kinds of land mines are permissible and how they are to be removed following the conclusion of a conflict, the use of naval mines has not been extensively discussed in an international treaty since the Hague Convention of 1907.

The use of land mines, as well as the removal and disposal of land mines is very closely monitored by the United Nations Mine Action Service, there is no comparable agency which oversees the safe removal and detonation of naval mines.

When I wrote the article about land mines which appeared in our April 21st, 2017 issue, it was very easy for me to obtain accurate current information about the estimated numbers of mines which are believed to be buried in different countries throughout the world, as well as data regarding the numbers of injuries and casualties that result from land mines in different countries throughout the world each year because a number of agencies, including the UNMAS keep accurate and current records of this data on their websites.

By contrast, no agencies in the world keep comparable data regarding sea mines, no one anywhere in the world actually has any idea how many naval mines are buried on the sea floors throughout the world, there are no databases which list accurate estimates as to the number of sea mines that are leftover from 20th century conflicts, or those that are presently being buried in present day conflicts and for border protection today.  It is also almost impossible to find accurate numbers regarding the numbers of people, both military as well as civilian who are injured or killed as the result of sea mines each year.

There are notably fewer civilian casualties which are the results of sea mines than land mines, but that does not mean that sea mines are any less dangerous or should be ignored.  Just like land mines, sea mines are indiscriminate; when they detonate, anything that is within their range will be destroyed.

Civilian casualties which result from land mines are rare because most of the people who operate commercial and recreational fishing boats, commercial cargo ships, pleasure boaters, etc. know to stay far away from active war zones, though ships do occasionally veer far from their intended routes during heavy storms.  It isn’t possible to know precise numbers because when a ship sinks and the entire crew drowns, it is not always known whether the accident was caused by weather, by a mechanical or structural fault with the ship itself, or if an accident was the result of any number of other causes.  It is possible that mines which were buried in the sea bed throughout the course of the various conflicts from the 20th century are the cause of some shipwrecks in the present day in which the cause of the wreck is never actually determined.

Many of the same reasons that I stated that I feel that the U.S. government should sign party to as well as ratify the Land Mines Convention in the article that I wrote which appeared in our April 21st issue are also applicable to sea mines.

A Brief History Of Naval Mines

In some ways, the history of sea mines is comparable to the history of land mines.  Military historians believe that the earliest use of an early form of sea mine began in China in the 14th century, and the technologies have been becoming increasingly sophisticated ever since then.  There are displays in exhibits in military history museums throughout the world which show examples of sea mines from the 15th and the 16th centuries, up through present day weapons.

The Human Cost

Sea mines are in fact effective at accomplishing their intended use; although countermeasures such as minesweepers do exist, sea mines are an effective means of disabling ships and submarines, killing and injuring the crews of ships and submarines, and hence slowing or halting any military, militia, smugglers or terrorists who are attempting to land on a country’s shores.  Sea mines are still an effective tool for countries to use to protect their coastal borders.

However, similar to land mines, sea mines are indiscriminate weapons.  Sea mines will cause the same damage to civilian vessels, commercial ships, pleasure boaters, and even to swimmers who land in the wrong place as they will do to enemy military submarines or to ships that are operated by pirates or smugglers.

Naval mines are also particularly dangerous, because the explosive materials within them remain potentially explosive for many decades, and some will remain potentially explosive for an entire century, possibly even longer.  If even one or two mines are left buried, and hence forgotten about after a war ends, they still continue to pose a very real threat.  To compare with weapons that are used on land, archaeologists still continue to find cannon balls, bullets and bullet shells which they can trace to wars and battles from the 18th and the 19th centuries around the world every year.  In many countries in Europe, farmers continue to find what they refer to as the “iron harvest” each year, in which they continue to find fragments of bombs from both world wars while they seed, irrigate, fertilize and harvest their crops.  Comparably, naval mines will probably inadvertently be dredged up during civilian commercial and industrial dredging operations for construction projects such as burying undersea electrical cables, constructing pilings for bridges, constructing tunnels, burying telecommunications cables, water pipes, mineral exploration and widening harbors.

When deep sea salvage operations, treasure hunters, shipwreck historians, marine archaeologists and marine biologists conduct research projects or salvage operations at locations at deep depths, they usually use unmanned remotely operated submersibles.  When they undertake research projects in shallow waters, they usually go scuba diving to conduct their research.  While I was researching this article, I did not find any recent incidents in which people who were working on salvage operations, treasure hunters, shipwreck historians, marine archaeologists, marine biologists or recreational scuba divers have been killed or injured by sea mines that had been left over from any of the wars of the 20th century, but the threat is still very real.  I did find some recent incidents in which commercial fishing boats in a number of different countries are still hauling up naval mines which had been buried during WWII in their fishing nets.  Fortunately, in the most recent incidents in which fishermen have hauled up WWII era naval mines in their nets, they’d contacted the coast guards in their countries, and munitions experts were able to safely detonate the mines without any injuries.

As I’ve stated, unlike land mines, there are no IGO’s which are presently keeping a database of known locations of sea mines throughout the world, so I can’t list any precise numbers or estimates.  The beds of the seas and oceans throughout the world are still littered with many thousands of naval mines from both world wars as well as from the conflicts of the Cold War era.  The explosives that are used in 21st century mines are now more powerful than ever, and the potential threat that these pose to civilians is still very real.  Until the governments of the world opt to ban future use of naval mines, there will still be the very real possibility of inevitable civilian casualties.

The Environmental Cost

Obviously, the primary reason for writing international disarmament treaties is to save human lives, though in the case of naval mines, banning future use would also have environmental benefits.  Mines are in fact bombs, when they explode, they do destroy everything within a given radius.  Sea beds are fragile ecosystems; when a section of a sea bed is destroyed by a mine explosion, it takes many decades for the species of marine flora and fauna to begin to recover.  A lot more is known now about how ecosystems throughout the world are related than was known in previous centuries.  When a section of seabed is destroyed, a section of a fishery is destroyed, that section of the sea will not be producing any plant life or marine wildlife for many years.    The sea floors cannot withstand the use of naval mines anymore, some marine ecosystems will probably never fully recover.

Sections of the sea bed also move during storms, tsunamis, earthquakes and the subsequent aftershocks.  It is not uncommon for items that had been part of a section of a sea bed to be found many hundreds of miles away from the location where they had originally been located following seaquakes.  Therefore, even if every military from every country from throughout the world is extremely careful about using GPS markers to keep accurate records of the location of every sea mine that they bury so that mines can be removed once they determine that they no longer need to mine that section of a coastline, sea mines still pose a danger.  If they are relocated during a seaquake or a tsunami, then they will pose a very real threat to whomever inadvertently discovers them wherever a mine ends up landing following a seaquake.

Doesn’t Every Country Have The Right To Protect Their Borders?

Yes, and in today’s world when terrorists, rogue regimes, and international arms and narcotics smugglers are a very real concern, no country can afford to be lax about border security.  As I mentioned, naval mines are in fact a military weapon- they do effectively disable military vessels, they do injure and kill the soldiers who are on board those vessels.

There are also the inevitable unintended civilian casualties.  As I stated in the article which I wrote about land mines, in the 21st century, militaries throughout the world now have access to satellite surveillance and aerial drones which can be used to monitor the activities along coasts, and militaries have access to precision guided missiles which can be used to stop any enemy military, militias, terrorists or smugglers who may be attempting to land along a coastal region.  In the 21st century, governments and militaries no longer need to rely on the use of indiscriminate weapons to protect their coastlines, coastal islands or military bases which are located in coastal regions.

Won’t These Weapons Become Obsolete Because Of Newer Technologies, Anyway?

Probably, but quite a few countries are still using naval mines to protect various coastal regions, particularly those countries which are presently involved in wars and border disputes with their neighbors.

While the technologies probably now do exist for coast guards and customs and border agencies throughout the world to use satellite surveillance and aerial drones to accomplish all of the tasks that need to be addressed regarding border security, some governments are still depending on the use of sea mines to protect sections of their coasts and coastal islands, and the leaders in many militaries throughout the world do not seem to be interested in seriously considering phasing out the use of sea mines at this point.  It does seem that it will take a new international disarmament treaty for governments throughout the world to relinquish these weapons.

How Can This Be Accomplished?

Eliminating sea mines throughout the world can be accomplished the same way that all disarmament treaties are accomplished.

Representatives from a number of countries need to recognize that these weapons are indiscriminate, in addition to enemy combatants or terrorists, they also pose a risk to civilians, and furthermore, there are also environmental consequences to consider.

Representatives from a number of countries will need to recognize that there are a number of newer technologies available now which their governments and their militaries can effectively use to protect their coasts, which do not pose such a high risk of civilian casualties.

If enough people who are working in enough governments throughout the world begin to recognize this, then people who work within various UN agencies will start to pay an increasing degree of attention to this issue, and eventually people will organize meetings in which they can propose terms of a disarmament treaty which would be intended to eliminate sea mines.

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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